UNITY program participants are putting on a pizza dinner to raise funds for Be Like Brit, an orphanage in Haiti. Left, checking over the dinner menu.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts native Britney Gengel was on a service trip to Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, with her college when she sent her mother a text message.
"They love us so much and everyone is so happy. They love what they have and they work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want to move here and start an orphanage myself."
Three hours later, a massive 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. More than 100,000 people were killed — including Britney.
More than four years later, the teenagers involved with the UNITY program of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition are holding a pizza dinner to fundraiser to help support the foundation Britney's parents started after death: Be Like Brit, a nonprofit organization that houses orphaned children in Grand Goâve, Haiti.
After 2 1/2 years of construction, the 19,000 square foot orphanage was dedicated and blessed in an ecumenical celebration of life and love on Jan. 5, 2013. On what would have been Brit's 23rd birthday, Be Like Brit brought in its first child, a 3-year-old boy. Today, Be Like Brit is home to 35 children and employs more than 40 full-time employees.
The dinner will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, May 29, at American Legion Post 125. The cost is $7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors, but a donation of hygiene products and school supplies for the orphanage will lower the cost of admission by $2.
The idea to support Be Like Brit stemmed from the organization's sponsorship of SkillsUSA, a program that many of the teenagers who attend McCann Technical School are familiar with.
"We thought it would be cool to do something around that," said McCann junior Nick Belanger.
UNITY (United, Neighboring, Interdependent, Trusted Youth) Program Coordinator Kate Merrigan helped the group shape the idea of the fundraiser by looking at the students' skills and interests.
"What would our group be good at doing?" she said.
Because there are three McCann culinary students involved in UNITY, the teens decided they would be good at putting on a dinner. And they wanted to do something different than the more-common spaghetti dinner to "get the community excited," said Caitlin Mayes, a junior at Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School.
Plus, she said, "Pizza is cheap."
It actually hasn't turned out to be all that cheap, as the cost of the cheese alone would have taken a huge bite out the group's modest budget for the event. So the students have been writing letters and trying to solicit donations of cheese, and recently secured 10 pounds - about one-third of what they need - from Wild Oats in Williamstown.
The goal is to make 15 pizzas for the dinner, through that could change, Merrigan said.
"It's a moving target," she said. "If it's the talk of the town ... we'll raise that number."
In addition to the student-made pizza — which will include vegetarian and gluten-free options — the dinner will include salad and a dessert bake sale as well as feature performances from local teenagers, including poetry readings and live music.
The students are excited about doing this community service project, and also about the possibility of Britney's mother, Cherylann, joining them to highlight Be Like Brit. The Gengel family is from Holden, just outside of Worcester.
"If her mom could make it, she could talk about it," Drury 10th-grader Brenda Neff said.
But even if Gengal does not make it, the students are determined to make this fundraiser a success. In addition to the skills they are learning by planning the event, from garnering donations to writing a news release to planning a menu and entertainment, they know any amount of money they can raise for the Be Like Brit foundation will help continue the dream of a life cut too short.
"One dollar is a dollar more than they had before they got that dollar," McCann senior Robert Foster said.